With its terrible brutality and its death toll of nearly 60,000 lives in four years, the current Mexican drug war recalls two other periods of violence across the past two centuries of Mexican history: the War of Independence of 1810–1821 (and its long aftermath in the nineteenth century) and the Mexican Revolution of the early twentieth, with their greater death tolls but equivalent ferocity. Politically motivated but expanding into a broader chaos, both of these previous outbreaks were stemmed by authoritarian governments, the first by the dictator Porfirio Díaz in the late nineteenth century, the second by the formation of the PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional) in the 1930s, which created a powerful presidency, with a new candidate elevated every six years. It was a system that lasted till the end of the twentieth century. Such a solution from on high, from absolute authority, is no longer possible in the current, democratic Mexico.
The murder rate is statistically higher in Honduras, Guatemala, Colombia, and Brazil, but in Mexico we are enduring a continual escalation of nearly unbelievable cruelty, with murder and torture a constant marked by decapitations, mutilations, kidnappings for profit, and mass executions. In the most afflicted areas, the criminal groups threaten to supplant local power with their displays of terror and volleys of bullets. In the era of YouTube and instant Internet news, it is a return to the past.
But it is not a sudden explosion, rather the result of a storm that has been gathering for decades, unforeseen and overwhelming. El Narco, by the English journalist Ioan Grillo, deals with the history and culture of this highly remunerative savagery. Its title is the term for the drug trade as well as for its individual agents, and Grillo presents a grim story and perceptive analyses clearly, with intelligent restraint, great courage, and a wealth of detail.
The roots of the drug trade go back to the end of the nineteenth century, in the west coast state of Sinaloa, over five hundred miles north of Mexico City. In what Grillo calls the Mexican Sicily, Chinese laborers, who had arrived to construct the new railroads, planted small fields of opium poppies in the fertile hills. By the 1930s local farmers had taken over these farms, persecuting, expelling, and often killing the Chinese.
Many of the major capos of El Narco were born in the 1950s in the hills of Sinaloa, like Joaquín “El Chapo” (“Shorty”) Guzmán, the son of a small grower of opium poppies and marijuana, who has earned a certain special fame as the only criminal on Forbes’ Billionaire List. By then, the cultivation of opium poppies had become a local tradition, practiced for generations and colloquially referred to as “the paste” (la goma). A Sinaloan baseball team boasted the name Los Gomeros.
A decisive moment came when, in 1976 and with American aid, the Mexican government sent planes and ten thousand soldiers to Sinaloa, destroying plantings and arresting hundreds of traffickers. Yet the real aim of the police and military was not to destroy the production and trafficking but rather to control it. According to reliable testimony collected in Los señores del narco (The Lords of the Drug Trade) by the Mexican investigative journalist Anabel Hernández, the initial arrangement consisted of collecting unofficial taxes from the producers and dealers, which were then used to combat the marginal leftist guerrillas of that era. And very soon, in a nondemocratic, intrinsically corrupt, and secretive “system,” as it came to be known, politicians, police, and the military began to see how drug profits (still far below present levels) could usefully grease many hands.
Hernández’s investigation into corruption complements Grillo’s more far-ranging book. She traces the collusion of government, law enforcement, and military figures with the narcos back at least to the 1970s. The señores to whom she refers are not only the narcos themselves but their accomplices in one government and government agency after another. Los señores del narco can be difficult to follow because of a somewhat disjointed structure and, more important, the lack of a very much needed index to guide us among its hundreds of names. Hernández’s information varies from insufficiently proven or unlikely assertions (especially about the highest reaches of the last two administrations of Vicente Fox and Felipe Calderón) to a considerable quantity of reliable and valiant research, especially perceptive for the long years of PRI domination through the Carlos Salinas administration between 1988 and 1994. Her book has sold over 170,000 copies in Mexico and she now lives protected by bodyguards.
The 1980s were the years of the boom of cocaine in the US and an enormous surge in production, export, and cost-cutting on the US streets compensated by much greater sales, all of it initiated by the Colombian Pablo Escobar and his Medellín cartel. At the time, 90 percent of American consumption passed, by sea and air, from Colombia to Miami, with connections in Fidel Castro’s Cuba and money-laundering in Manuel Noriega’s Panama. In February 1985, the Americans were outraged by the kidnapping, torture, and murder of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena by narcos including a brother-in-law of Luis Eche-verría, the PRI president of Mexico from 1970 to 1976. Two important capos, sought as responsible, were captured and eventually extradited to the US.
But the trade also had received an unexpected boost from the activities of another US agency. In what came to be revealed as the Iran-contra affair, the Reagan government defied Congress and American public opinion, and the CIA became involved in the secret and complicated sale of arms to Iran (ostensibly the enemy of the US). As part of the intricate international cover-up, the Americans secretly collaborated with the narcos in moving significant shipments of cocaine through Honduras, with profits paying for the operations of the Nicaraguan contras.
Far closer and more substantial connections were being established between Mexican and Colombian drug dealers. As the DEA stepped up pressure on cocaine cultivation in Colombia and disrupted shipments of the product by sea, the Colombian narcos enlisted their Mexican counterparts to transport the drug overland to the US, for payment in cash.
Then, in a display of traditional Mexican diplomatic dexterity, this time by criminals, the Colombians were persuaded to make their payments to the Mexicans in cocaine, a deal they may have accepted in order to simplify and reduce their direct involvement. The Mexican cartels used the opportunity to take over much of the cocaine trade, extending their influence to the streets of the US. So much cocaine in transit flooded into Mexico that a portion (in contrast to earlier prohibitions among the narcos) was retained for domestic consumption. The result was a surge both in Mexican sales and addiction and in their consequent social problems: destroying lives and families, increasing corruption and recruitment, and encouraging (at the local level) the expansion of narco gangs into other areas of criminality, especially kidnappings for ransom and generalized extortion.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Castro executed several Cuban military officers accused of complicity in the drug trade. They may have been scapegoats. (Neither Grillo nor Hernández discusses the murky Cuban connection.) For whatever reasons, the Caribbean corridor basically closed down.
During the 1990s, President Salinas could still largely control the political, police, and military apparatus in dealing with the drug trade. Meanwhile, according to Grillo, his brother Raúl was piling up $500 million in Swiss bank accounts, from unexplained sources. After the signing of the NAFTA agreements of 1994, commerce, legal and illegal, swiftly grew between Mexico and the US. But the arrests of major traffickers under the administration of Ernesto Zedillo, between 1994 and 2000, seemed to indicate that the government still maintained a reasonable measure of control.
With the electoral defeat of the long-dominant PRI in 2000, Mexico became a democracy. The country now had a true division of powers, complete liberty of expression, free elections, and a law requiring transparency in the workings of the federal government. But there was one unexpected consequence. By ending the near-absolute control of the president, the new system strengthened local powers. The governors and mayors, the illegal force of the narcos and other criminal groups all became stronger. The stage was set for a tragic denouement.
In January 2001 the major Sinaloan capo “Shorty” Guzmán mysteriously escaped from a supposedly maximum-security prison. Hernández devotes much space to the details of the escape but is unconvincing in her attempt to trace the reasons for it all the way to figures close to President Vicente Fox. Yet she firmly establishes the complicity of lower-level prison officials, who were extravagantly paid to expedite Guzmán’s departure, and she offers fascinating details of Guzmán’s privileged circumstances in prison. He was able to rapidly convoke a summit meeting of the mostly Sinaloan narco bosses, his friends and relatives.
The result was an ephemeral “Federation” dedicated to “peace”—among narcos—and including what was now known as the Sinaloa cartel (headed by Guzmán and other confederates), the Juárez cartel directed by Vicente Carrillo Fuentes, the Beltrán Leyva group (cousins of “El Chapo” Guzman), and, from the state of Michoacán, a gang with a strange, Protestant fundamentalist ideology, La Familia Michoacana, who virtually created the large Mexican trade in methamphetamines, “hillbilly heroin,” a highly destructive drug then expanding its reach especially in the rural US. (Their hostile offshoot the Knights Templar—Caballeros Templarios—has been fighting its own barbaric local war with La Familia Michoacana and is now displacing them in Michoacán.)
The objective of the Federation was to present a united front against two powerful cartels: the Arellano Félix group in Tijuana and the Gulf cartel, headed by Osiel Cárdenas, whose ferocity is encapsuled in his nickname “Mata Amigos” (“Killer of Friends”). In 2002, Benjamín Arellano Félix was captured and extradited to the US, followed by the death of his brother Ramón, known for dissolving the bodies of his victims in acid. The Federation seemed to be consolidating itself and some believed that the government was favoring this older group, perhaps because it had more control over it.
But later in 2003, the Federation broke apart because of internal disputes. There were confrontations on two fronts: one was Ciudad Juárez, where the murder of Rodolfo Carrillo Fuentes (supposedly ordered by “El Chapo”) inflamed the already simmering mini-war between the Gulf cartel and the Federation. The other was in the city of Nuevo Laredo, the “Jewel in the Crown” of the Gulf cartel. On assignment then for the Houston Chronicle, Ioan Grillo was there to report the story.
What he encountered was the bewildering rise of an originally small group of deserters from the Mexican army, who were hired by Osiel Cárdenas during the 1980s as enforcers for the Gulf cartel. They were elite troops trained in the United States, at sites like the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare School and Center of Fort Bragg, to fight against insurgents in Latin America. They called themselves the Zetas and would expand their numbers through recruiting first other deserters, then young men in the poorer areas of Mexico; finally they incorporated former Kaibiles, Guatemalan special forces well known for their horrific torture and murder of peasants and Indians during the Guatemalan civil war of the 1970s and 1980s. The group would eventually swell to ten thousand men. As Grillo notes, they thought more like mercenary soldiers than gangsters. Their objective was to control territory through terror—mass killings, decapitations and mutilations, propaganda displayed on crude banners, and a knowledgeable use of the Internet. They became adept at a whole range of criminal activities beyond trafficking in drugs.